Annapurna, the boutique film studio behind this year’s “She Said,” as well as acclaimed works including “Booksmart” and “If Beale Street Could Talk,” is expanding with an animation division to be headed by Blue Sky Studios and Walt Disney Animation veterans Robert Baird and Andrew Millstein.
The department, said Baird and Millstein, will work closely with Annapurna’s numerous divisions, including the celebrated interactive team, which has brought to market a number of inventive, narrative-focused games, including this year’s cat-driven sci-fi adventure “Stray.”
The first film the team will release is next year’s previously announced fantasy “Nimona,” based upon the ND Stevenson graphic novel of the same name. “Nimona,” set in a mashup futuristic medieval world where both magic and science reign, follows the titular shape-shifter and her supervillain mentor. It began its production at once-Fox owned and now shuttered Blue Sky Studios, but was left without a home when Walt Disney Co. closed the studio in early 2021, resulting in about 450 layoffs.
The Megan Ellison-founded Annapurna partnered with Netflix earlier this year to finish the film. “Nimona” aimed to subvert the idea of what makes a person a villain, a sidekick or even a hero, asking large, existential questions about personal identity and the power of individual change.
“So many Blue Sky-iers blood, sweat and tears went into ‘Nimona,’” said Baird, who briefly served as a co-head of Blue Sky with Millstein and has writing credits on such Disney/Pixar films as “Big Hero 6″ and “Monsters University.”
“We asked people to share their life story with us in making the movie, and those stories found their way into this story,” Baird said. “So we wanted to make sure this was told. I know everyone says this, but this one is special.”
The studio is launching at a time in which the animation industry has seen a great deal of upheaval and change. Industry reorganization, layoffs and consolidation at major firms such as Warner Bros. Discovery and Netflix have resulted in numerous animation projects being removed from streaming services or outright canceled.
Baird described his own experience at Blue Sky as “heartbreaking,” and Millstein, former president of Disney Animation Studios before being transferred to Blue Sky in 2019, acknowledged the general unease currently permeating the animation community. He hoped that amid such tumult, this news would be seen as a sign of optimism.
“In terms of talking to artists now, in this particular moment that we’re in, I think they’re cognizant of the sea changes and the choppiness right now,” Millstein said. “But I’m picking up a flexibility at the moment — a constructive flexibility. I feel like there’s a lot of hope and respect for what we’re trying to bring. So in spite of the choppiness, I think there’s an eagerness to be involved in something new, where there’s a lot of respect for the process.”
Adds, Baird, “We feel for everybody — every filmmaker. We’ve been there. I think that’s one of the things that filmmakers that we work with appreciate is that we have been there and we speak the same language. We’ve gone through the same ups and downs as everyone and we’re sensitive to that. We are committed to being a harbor in the storm.”
The pair weren’t ready to divulge the studio’s first original project, but noted that feature films and television series are being considered. Baird said they would also be taking a close look at Annapurna-released games for the possibility of expanding the studio’s own intellectual property. He cited such acclaimed works as “What Remains of Edith Finch,” a game that explored the mysteries of death amid a complex family lineage with a fairy tale tone, as well as the recent “Neon White,” a fast-paced shoot-and-run title with sinners and assassins traversing heaven and hell, as works that are rich with narrative possibilities.
“Getting the opportunity to get up close and personal with that catalog, and to have the opportunity to maybe adapt something that’s in that catalog, that’s a thrilling idea for us,” Baird said. “Those games are so storytelling driven, and it feels like the worlds that have been created are just right in the pocket for us and what we like to make.”
Baird and Millstein said they received a close look at how the studio’s games division works while they were completing “Nimona,” which they said needed about a year of production work once finding its way to Annapurna.“It was eye-opening to see how almost identical game development and feature animation development was,” said Baird. “That was another reason this seemed like a natural fit.”
It was Annapurna’s experience in games, said Millstein, that made him feel comfortable the studio would take a long-term bet on animation. Annapurna president Nathan Gary was previously an executive with Sony’s Santa Monica Studio, the video game design firm known for the “God of War” franchise. “Sometimes when you talk to people about animation who don’t understand animation, you’re talking a different language, in terms of how animated films are developed and produced,” Millstein said.
The two weren’t willing to tip their hand in terms of what kind of stories or themes may be ultimately produced, but said they would fit comfortably amid the Annapurna catalog, which across its divisions has an art-house-focused reputation.
“When you look at the Annapurna catalog and how varied it is, the one thing that is consistent across the board is that they are quality stories that are lasting, meaningful and challenging,” Baird said. “That’s what we like to make. I think the evidence is there in ‘Nimona’ and will be there in what we make going forward. We’re committed to telling great stories that will sit on the shelf besides anything else that’s in the Annapurna catalog.”
Source: LA Times